The Arizona Wildcats amassed 536 yards of offense Saturday at Cal, scored four touchdowns and topped the 30-point mark for the third time this season after doing so just once in 2021.
Arizona’s defense, on the other hand, surrendered 599 yards—354 of which came on the ground—and was pretty much helpless as the Golden Bears exploded for 49 points.
It was a winnable game, and the Wildcats failed to do so because their offense was just not good enough. It’s as simple as that.
When Arizona had an opportunity to put some distance between it and Cal, perhaps forcing the Bears away from the kind of game they want to play, the Cats came up short.
Upon Cal tying the game up at 21 with 3:33 left before the break, Arizona proceeded to do what it had done for the bulk of the first half and march right down the field. Settling for a 37-yard field goal wasn’t ideal, but it was enough to send the Wildcats into the intermission with a 3-point lead.
With Arizona receiving the kick off to start the third quarter you had to figure the ‘Cats would be able to extend that advantage, possibly to 10, not long after exiting the locker room.
Instead, Arizona went four-and out on their first drive and three-and-out on the next.
Two second-half possessions, one first down and zero points. In a game where you know your defense can’t get a stop, that’s not going to work.
The third quarter was really the turning point, wherein Arizona mustered just 66 yards of offense while losing a fumble. That period saw the Bears turn a 3-point deficit into an 11-point lead.
“Disappointed we didn’t score on the first possession of the second half,” Arizona coach Jedd Fisch said after the game. “I thought we were in good position, especially after the first play of the second half.
“And then when they scored and then they stopped us on a 3-and-out and then they scored again in the third quarter, the quarter almost got away. And then we drove all the way down, and then that was (when) I think we had a fumble there. So that was tough. That was a tough ... let’s call it a three series sequence.”
Things improved a bit in the fourth quarter but by then, because the defense was so bad, it was too late to make a meaningful difference.
After turning five first-half drives into 24 points, the offense more or less fell off a cliff in the second. Arizona had seven possessions over the final 30 minutes. They scored one touchdown, three turnovers and punted thrice.
This is not so much a defense of the defense, because Johnny Nansen’s group seemed to have no answer for an offense that is not exactly among the game’s best. Jadyn Ott is a talented player, but him running past, around and through Arizona to the tune of 274 yards and three scores on 19 carries was not exactly a great look.
What’s the opposite of Desert Swarm? Ocean Scatter?
Whatever adjective you use to describe the defense’s performance, so long as it’s of the negative variety you are absolutely correct. There were some solid individual efforts, but as a group it was hopefully as poor a performance we’ll see this season. Yet it would be wrong to pin the loss on the defense because, well, the offense had a chance to bail the group out and failed to do so.
Admittedly it’s a bit unfair to tell the offense it needs to be perfect to win, but given the makeup of the roster at this point in the rebuild that’s where things stand. Arizona spent much of the offseason upgrading that side of the ball, and clearly it has paid dividends.
Jayden de Laura is an excellent quarterback, Jacob Cowing is a top-flight receiver, the running back room is filled with talent, Tanner McClachlan is a revelation and both T-Mac and Dorian Singer are proving to be tough covers.
The coaching staff’s efforts in the transfer portal are paying off in a big way, and the number of true freshmen who are contributing speaks well to the program’s future.
Fisch has done a good job of both play design and play-calling, generally finding ways to get his guys open.
It’s been nice to see his offense run by talented players. At times Arizona has looked unstoppable, like it was much of the first half against Cal.
If the Wildcats are to win games, that must continue. In fact it needs to improve. Through four games Arizona is 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring defense but just ninth in scoring offense.
That’s not good enough for either group, but only one of them really has the talent to do substantially better. If it does, this season this season may yet produce some more wins.
History has proven a team need not be great on defense to win. You know the 2014 team that won the Pac-12 South? Led by Scooby Wright, it surrendered an average of about 28 points per game, which ranked eighth in the conference. Not great, but good enough enough with Arizona averaging 34.5 points of their own.
More recently the 2017 ‘Cats, with the dynamic Khalil Tate, allowed 34.4 points per game but scored 41.3. That team wasn’t great, but it won seven games.
Not Arizona, but on the extreme of this idea is 2016 Texas Tech. The Red Raiders allowed 43.5 points per game, but on the strength of Patrick Mahomes’ greatness scored 43.67. That team only won five times, finding ways to lose with point totals of 55, 59 and 44.
Arizona probably doesn’t have to score like Texas Tech, and in an ideal world the defense will play well enough to keep opponents under 30 most weeks. With that — or better — in mind, the rebuild of the defense is already underway.
There are potential impact players from the 2022 recruiting class, and if you are looking at the top-10 highest rated commits in the ‘23 class, six play on the defensive side of the ball.
Combined with the transfer portal, there is every reason to believe over the next couple of years Arizona’s defense should improve. It would be hard not to.
But it won’t happen this season, at least not consistently with these players, which means it will be on the offense to help out its defense by scoring points and putting pressure on opponents to do the same.